'Partners' Praise Mayor But Not His Government The Schmoke Years

August 11, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

Helen Shaw has gone to court six times in the last few years to complain about two dilapidated properties in her Belair-Edison neighborhood that were being used to store junk -- from motorcycles to musical instruments.

Each time, the judge fined the property owner and ordered him to clean the buildings. Each time, the order was ignored.

In October, members of the Belair Improvement Association played their trump card: They invited Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to come with them to court.

"He told the judge that he had seen the buildings and that they were eyesores and something had to be done," Mrs. Shaw said. Sixteen days later, city crews appeared and hauled away the junk.

In four years, Mayor Schmoke has increasingly become the person to whom neighborhood leaders turn when they need someone to deliver services, lead their parades or console their communities in times of tragedy.

But the government that he controls and that is responsible for answering residents' calls for help -- picking up their bulk trash, clearing their alleys of rats, protecting them from crime -- is widely criticized as unresponsive and arrogant.

"I don't expect the mayor to answer everyone's complaints because then he'd have to be in a lot of neighborhoods," says Alfred Burnham, who lives in the 2600 block of East Monument Street, where he and his neighbors have tried in vain to get the city to help rid their alley of rats. "But it's his government, and I think that if a person calls, they should get some kind of response."

Four years ago, Mr. Schmoke's candidacy excited community leaders who felt they had been left out of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer's glittering renaissance of downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor.

Mr. Schmoke won over voters with his ideas for increasing homeownership among low- and middle-income people and for a community development bank to finance improvements for commercial strips and abandoned houses.

Yet Mr. Schmoke acknowledges that progress in achieving his vision for Baltimore's neighborhoods has been slow. Cutbacks in federal funds for community efforts, he said, have forced a change in strategy, and now he is encouraging residents to get away from reliance on public funds, to organize themselves and to work with city agencies.

For example, Mr. Schmoke has designated five "conservation neighborhoods" that receive "special attention" -- but no money -- from City Hall. Residents do most of the work -- staffing citizen patrols, inspecting properties, keeping streets clean -- and they say a strong community organization is essential.

The do-it-yourself strategy is one that neighborhood leaders seemed to see as their only realistic alternative.

"I can't say that our neighborhood has improved over the last four years," said K. C. Docie, president of the Waverly Improvement Association. "But I think it's on its way. We have a stronger voice now, and we have the mayor's support. That's good enough for now.

"In [Mayor Schmoke's] next term, we expect more dramatic changes."

As he goes door-to-door seeking votes, Mr. Schmoke boasts that partnerships among the city, churches, banks and individuals have led to marked progress -- from the Nehemiah low-income housing development in Sandtown-Winchester to the opening of recreation centers to assignment of 50 foot-patrol officers across the city to the removal of graffiti. In the two years since the Community Development Financing Corp. was formed, it has made loans totaling $14 million to restore 139 vacant buildings with 518 dwelling units for low- to moderate-income homeowners and renters.

But in the city's diverse neighborhoods themselves, the record is mixed, and the mayor's popularity is more often than not measured by the view over the back fence.

In Waverly, residents have worked with City Hall to decide the fate of Memorial Stadium and to establish a recycling center; in Belair-Edison and Highlandtown, the administration stepped in to grab federal urban renewal grants for down-at-the-heels commercial strips; in Panway in West Baltimore, at the urging of neighborhood residents, the city hauled a cab company to court to force it to clear its parking lot of junked cars. The company's $5,000 fine will be channeled back into the neighborhood.

But Mr. Schmoke cannot always count on a warm reception when he goes to Locust Point, where he outraged the community in 1988 by proposing that a firehouse be closed.

Nor can he expect a warm welcome in Pigtown, where his proposal to cut funds for a police youth club prompted residents to gather 500 signatures on a petition that they delivered to the mayor's office.

In the 2300 block of East Monument Street, Lillian E. Newell is angry because she can't get help in her fight against rats that gnaw holes in her fence and rummage through garbage.

"When I called the rat eradication office, [the supervisor] asked me, 'Do you like the community where you live?' " said Mrs. Newell. "I told her that I do. And she said, 'So go buy some poison and bait the yard yourself.' "

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